The Cataplana: One Pot Cooking
The cataplana is an unusual but ingenious cooking vessel from the Algarve, in the south of Portugal. It is made of two copper domed lids that can be shut together and sealed tight. It is then put over a fire to create a miniature steam oven to cook whatever you have filled it with.
The story goes that the cataplana would be carried by men going on hunting trips and used to carry, and cook, whatever they caught. This sort of story is common throughout Europe, where Roman soldiers were supposed to have used their shields as a cooking utensil. The story of the cataplana makes sense – it is small and light enough you could definitely take it on a camping trip. Either way the cataplana is a wonderful and versatile cooking utensil.
It is poetically fitting the cataplana is shaped like a clam, for it is often used to cook the highly revered tiny carpet-shell clams. Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato is one of Portugal’s best and most famous dishes. In restaurants all along the south coast you see the cataplana sitting in the middle of tables, resting on thick mats made from cork bark. Steam billows out of them as they are opened. The clams are flavoured with generous amounts of garlic, olive oil, white wine and coriander. The Portuguese are, happily, not afraid of garlic! Cooking the clams in this intense and quick way makes sure they cook incredibly quickly, keeping them very soft and fresh tasting. The design is perfection – the bottom half holds the delicious cooking juices, ready to be soaked up into the gorgeous soft and chewy sourdough; while the other half is used to hold the discarded shells.
The cataplana can be used to cook almost anything, such as the famous Portuguese dish of pork and clams. What is now regarded as a great dish has dubious origins. It is said that the pork was cooked with clams to hide the taste of the pork, which were fed on fish. The beauty of the cataplana is that all the cooking can be done in one pot, and very quickly. Like in the recipe below all the vegetables and fish are locked in together so it is absolutely full of flavour.
The onions and peppers are cooked in lots of olive oil, along with bay, garlic and a little saffron. White wine is used to create more steam. I used two thick tranches of silver hake – an underrated fish in Britain, but loved in Spain and Portugal. The fish sits on top of the vegetables and is steamed to perfection inside the sealed cataplana. All you need is some good bread to mop all the delicious juices. In this version there were langoustines, an unnecessary but delectable luxury. Sometimes chouriço is added (the Portuguese version at its best is just as good, if not better than the Spanish variety). You can even add rice, or potatoes. Small waxy potatoes are a good addition.
Ingredients – Enough for Two People
2 thick silver hake steaks (tranche) on the bone
Other seafood such as langoustines, prawns, mussels or clams is optional
1 medium sized brown onion, sliced
1 red pepper, cut into thick slices
1 green pepper, cut into thick slices
2 medium sized tomatoes, roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic, whole with skin but bashed
pinch saffron strands
1 glass dry white wine
small bunch of coriander and parsley, chopped together
Pour in some olive oil and heat up the cataplana over a low flame. I always pour oil in first before heating the cataplana as it is made of copper, and copper reacts badly if heated up when dry. Add the onions, peppers, garlic and bay leaves. Soften in the oil. Now add tomatoes, saffron, a generous pinch of salt and cook for five minutes. Pour in the wine and stir. Sit the fish on top, close and seal the cataplana. Cook for 10 minutes, depending on how big the pieces of fish are. When the fish is cooked sprinkle the coriander and parsley and serve.